Paik Sun Yup

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Paik Sun Yup

Born November 23, 1920
Pyongyang, Korea

South Korean military leader and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, diplomat, and business executive

When the North Koreans invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) at the start of the Korean War in 1950, the ROK Army was unprepared. Its soldiers fought without training or good leadership, and, most of all, without adequate weapons and ammunition. In the initial two weeks of attack, thousands of ROK soldiers died or suffered severe wounds and the rest were sent off in disorganized retreat by an onslaught of well-trained, well-armed North Korean soldiers. Yet the army reorganized and came back whenever it suffered a setback, at times demonstrating selfless heroism and determination. One of the key players in bringing the stricken ROK Army to combat efficiency was Paik Sun Yup. Only twenty-nine years old when the war began, he led his ROK First Division so skillfully that it was quickly recognized as a reliable combat unit by all the United Nations (UN) forces. In their introduction to Paik's book, From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General, the American general Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993), commander of the UN forces, and James A. Van Fleet (1892–1992), the American commander of the Eighth Army, said of Paik that "he was, without question, the finest operational commander in the Republic of Korea." Paik was a hands-on general who saw most of the combat in the Korean War firsthand. He was an active participant in the rebuilding and reshaping of the ROK army throughout the war. Paik was staunchly anticommunist and devoted to the cause of a unified, independent Korea. As a general, he was utterly loyal to the Republic of Korea and its often difficult leader, Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entries). The young general's courage and commitment were well known and in the twenty-first century he is still considered a legend in his homeland.


Paik Sun Yup was born in 1920 in the small town of Tokhung in Kangso County, seventeen miles southeast of Pyongyang (later the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea). When Paik was five, he moved with his mother, brother, and sister to Pyongyang. There, severe poverty ruled their lives. They lived in a small room, frequently going hungry. His mother and sister eventually found jobs at a rubber factory, enabling Paik to attend primary school and later a five-year training course for teachers at the Pyongyang Normal School.

As a senior at the normal school, Paik realized he wanted to be a soldier, so upon graduation he went to Manchuria, China, to the Mukden Military Academy. In 1942, he became a second lieutenant in the Manchurian Army. At the end of World War II in 1945, Paik returned to Pyongyang. He hoped that Korea, recently liberated from decades-long Japanese rule, would achieve independence. Instead he found the Soviet Army occupying his homeland (the Soviets and the United States had agreed to both occupy Korea after World War II until the country could successfully rule itself; the Soviets were in the area north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line, while the Americans were in the south) and the young communist leader Kim Il Sung (1912–1994; see entry) was rapidly rising to power in the north. For a time, Paik worked for a rigidly anti-Japanese nationalist (one who wanted to see a united, independent Korea) who served as a provincial ruler in Pyongyang. When the Soviets imprisoned his boss in December 1945, Paik fled south across the 38th parallel.

Invasion from the north

In the south, Paik was commissioned a first lieutenant in the South Korean Constabulary, which would later become the ROK Army. During the next four years, he moved up the ranks to the position of colonel. On June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invaded, he had just taken over the command of the ROK First Division, which was positioned to defend Seoul, the capital city.

On the day of the invasion, however, Paik had been away from the ROK First for ten days, attending infantry school in Seoul. When he learned of the attack, he hurried to ROK headquarters. He soon learned that a good portion of his division had been given leave while he was away. When he got to the battlefront he found his Thirteenth Regiment fighting well, although just beginning an orderly withdrawal. The Eleventh Regiment, which had been on reserve, was beginning to muster its soldiers and appear on the scene. But the Twelfth Regiment had been almost entirely wiped out near the border town of Kaesong.

"T-34 Disease"

On that first afternoon, what was left of the First Division entered into a fierce battle with the NKPA, which had crossed the Imjin River with a tank column composed of Russian T-34 tanks. Paik's men had no training with tanks and no ammunition that could penetrate the armor. In his memoirs, Paik recalled the "T-34 disease": panic at the mention of the word "tank." Despite the general panic, a number of courageous soldiers formed suicide squads to stop the tanks. These men climbed onto the tanks and detonated grenades and explosives, dying in the explosions that successfully destroyed the tanks. Paik remarked: "Although such desperate acts brought tears to my eyes, the bravery of these men prevented NKPA armored units from getting past the Thirteenth all that first day, earning precious time for division troops on leave and pass to return to the Eleventh."

The North Koreans pushed through the ROK First the next evening. Under heavy attack, Paik realized what a powerful, massive, and well-prepared enemy he faced. On the third day of the war, Paik's troops were fighting better than ever but there was no way to continue to hold their position, and Paik asked for permission to withdraw. Orders came back from headquarters to stay there and fight to the death. Paik understood that his division would be mauled, but he obeyed.

Things went from very bad to worse. On the afternoon of the June 28, the ROK First sent an ambulance to Seoul only to find that the capital had fallen to the enemy and they were completely isolated from support. The Han River Bridge, which the First Division needed to cross in retreat, had been destroyed. Soon the enemy was completely surrounding the ROK First. Paik's officers reported that ammunition was nearly gone. When things seemed as if they could not get any worse, the U.S. Air Force began to bomb the ROK First units, mistaking them for the enemy. Although his men were angry at the grisly mistake, Paik took heart at the sight of the American aircraft, realizing that it meant the United States was going to support the Republic of Korea in this war. After holding out against the enemy longer than anyone could have expected, the First Division began a very difficult withdrawal to the Han River south of Seoul. Paik had held his position against overwhelming odds for four days, but the survivors of his division were badly scattered in retreat.

The two-hundred-mile retreat to the Pusan Perimeter

By the beginning of July, Paik was able to assemble only two to three thousand men of his formerly ten-thousand-man division. With them he began the long retreat south to the city of Taejon. The United States had decided to send ground troops into Korea and the first units of the U.S. Army were starting to arrive under the resolution of the United Nations, which had agreed to supply forces to help the Republic of Korea. The U.S. Army was taking responsibility for the Seoul to Pusan Highway area; the ROK Army would handle the central and eastern fronts. They were all beginning a strategy of delaying the enemy in its relentless drive south. In vicious warfare with very few victories and terrible losses, the First Division fell back a grueling two hundred miles over the next month.

On July 27, much to his own surprise, Paik was promoted to the position of brigadier general. Still there was no rest for him or his troops in the bloody retreat. On August 1, thoroughly exhausted and spent, the First took a position on the Naktong River in the Pusan Perimeter, where the U.S. and South Korean forces had concentrated at the southern tip of Korea. There, the ROK Army was responsible for the fifty-five-mile front on the northern boundary of the perimeter and the United States for the seventy-five-mile western boundary. Stretched too thin, the First could barely defend itself against the North Koreans during the day when the U.S. air support was there to help. On August 8, during the night, the North Koreans completed an underground bridge across the river— made up of sandbags, rocks, logs, and barrels built up from the river bottom to about a foot below the river's surface—and crossed it with their tanks. The ROKs had obtained an antitank weapon that worked against the T-34 tanks and ten enemy tanks were destroyed that night, but the enemy had still infiltrated their position.

"If I turn back, shoot me"

After further withdrawal and heavy fighting in the Pusan Perimeter, Paik teamed up with U.S. Colonel John "Mike" Michaelis, commander of the famous Wolfhounds, the U.S. Twenty-seventh Regiment, in the defense of the city of Taegu. The First Division held the hills around the town of Tabu-dong and fought the North Korean soldiers while the Twenty-seventh held the road and fought the NKPA tanks. For Paik's troops, the battles consisted mainly of intense, exhausting hand-to-hand combat. On August 18, the enemy had penetrated into the foothills outside of Taegu. The fighting was furious. Night after night, the North Korean tanks rode down a 2.5-mile road called the "Bowling Alley" toward the ROKs. Colonel Michaelis's Twenty-seventh Regiment repelled them with its own tanks.

On August 20, the North Koreans launched a fierce attack, and Paik learned that his Eleventh Regiment had been thrown into a retreat. Michaelis's Twenty-seventh Regiment was made vulnerable by the Eleventh's withdrawal, and the colonel told Paik he had no choice but to withdraw his own forces. Paik urged him to hold off and jumped into a jeep heading for the front. He found the soldiers of the Eleventh in a full retreat. The commander of the Eleventh told him the men were totally exhausted; supplies had been cut off, and the men had not even had any water for two days. Paik recalled in his memoirs summoning the troops to him and delivering a speech:

I want to thank you for fighting like you have. But we just don't have room to retreat any more. The only place left for us to go is into the ocean. If we run now, Korea is done for. Look at those American troops over there. They're fighting because they trust the ROK Army, and if we retreat, we bring shame down on the entire ROK Army. We are men of Korea; let us fight for this land. We're going to turn around and kick the enemy off our ridge, and I shall be at the front. If I turn back, shoot me.

With Paik at the front, the regiment retook the hill it had just lost and held its position. After the battle, Paik recounted in his book, Michaelis said: "When I saw the division commander himself leading that attack, I knew the ROK Army was God's own force." Paik had instigated a crucial reversal in the battle, but he had lost many soldiers in the campaign: "ROK First Division losses were so great that I just wanted to fall down and bawl," he recalled.

Return to his home

While the ROK First Division continued to fight in the Pusan Perimeter, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry), the commander of the UN forces in Korea, carried out his plan for an amphibious assault (using land, sea, and air forces) at the port city of Inchon. The attack at Inchon, carried out by the new X Corps MacArthur had put together (consisting of the First Marine Division, the Third and Seventh Infantry divisions, and ROK I Corps), was a complete success. UN forces had invaded Korea well behind the enemy and gained access to Seoul. The North Koreans fighting at Pusan fled when they learned of Inchon, allowing the Eighth Army troops that had been penned in there to advance north. Paik then led the UN forces in the capture of his home town, Pyongyang. The assault was successful and one of Paik's great memories: "I shall remember our final assault on Pyongyang to my dying day. My two regiments attacked in line abreast across the vast plain, supported by fifty tanks and no fewer than four battalions of artillery—more than one hundred howitzers and mortars. This was my moment in the sun."

On to the Yalu River

After Pyongyang, Paik's First Division pushed up to the northern city of Unsan. Then, on October 25, 1950, an unknown enemy surrounded the entire division. The ROK First had stepped into a huge trap set by the recently arriving Communist Chinese Forces and a furious battle began. Paik, who spoke fluent Chinese, interviewed a prisoner of war (POW) and learned that tens of thousands of Chinese troops were in position in the valley around them. This was reported to MacArthur and his staff. MacArthur, despite this and other statements made by officials of the Chinese government, chose not to believe that the Chinese were intervening in the war. Six days into the battle, Paik's men were exhausted and the losses were terrible. He received permission to withdraw, and during the night his division made a six-mile retreat.

On November 6, the Chinese mysteriously withdrew from battle. For the first time since the war began four months before, the First Division was allowed to rest. When they returned, they joined in the Eighth Army's advance up to the Yalu River at China's border with North Korea. On the second morning of this offensive, November 25, 1950, the Chinese counterattacked the Eighth Army with incredible force. That day, the ROK Seventh and Eighth divisions were totally destroyed. By November 28, the entire army was in retreat. The First Division along with several other UN divisions tried to hold a line at Pyongyang, but on December 3 they were given orders from MacArthur to withdraw down to the 38th parallel. Paik recalled in his memoirs: "For us in the ROK Army, December 3, 1950, lives as the day when our dream of national unification by force was dashed forever." His soldiers were badly demoralized. "This reversal was so total and so swift that soldiers couldn't deal with it… . When morale sinks to suchdepths, units simply ignore orders and directives."

The third Chinese offensive

On December 31, 1950, the ROK First Division returned to defensive positions along the 38th parallel. In a surprise attack, the Chinese penetrated into the right wing of Paik's Twelfth Regiment. As night fell, the Chinese attacked the Fifteenth Regiment with fury. Both regiments were in an impossible situation and there was nothing left for Paik to do but issue the order for the whole division to withdraw. In fact, all of the ROK divisions were forced to withdraw. On January 2, 1951, Seoul was once again abandoned to the North Koreans, and the retreats continued into the south, far enough from enemy fire to allow rehabilitation for the demoralized and exhausted UN forces.

As Chinese offensives continued in the months to come, Paik observed that Chinese POWs were increasingly exhausted, starving, and often infected with disease. The enemy that had once seemed unstoppable was wearing down visibly. General Ridgway had taken command of the Eighth Army in December and began to launch counterattacks, chasing the Chinese back up to the north. When the ROK First joined with the other divisions in advancing northward, they moved slowly and with the support of adjoining units in standard, tight military formation. Although fiercely resisted in further Chinese offensives, the UN command worked its way north again, recapturing Seoul in March 1951 and positioning itself near the 38th parallel by the end of that month.

A new command

In April, Paik was promoted to major general and given command of the ROK I Corps. Leaving what he called the "magnificent ROK First Division" was emotional, as he described in his memoirs: "I had shared the joys and sorrows and the life and death pressures of combat with these men for ten long months, and we had grown as close as brothers." In Pusan, for the first time since the war had erupted, Paik was reunited with his family. He found his mother, wife, and three-year-old daughter living in one small room in Pusan, without money or food. His wife was critically ill with typhoid fever.

As a corps commander, Paik oversaw the operations and training of the divisions in his corps. He traveled to the front to inspect the troops and confer with the commanders. He served as a liaison between the commanders and headquarters and coordinated their efforts with those of the U.S. Navy and air forces. Throughout the spring of 1951, the Chinese offensives took a tremendous toll on the South Korean forces. The Chinese were singling out the ROK units for attack, knowing that they were poorly armed. Some of the ROK performances were not good; the ROK III Corps, for example, disintegrated under intense enemy attack, leaving surrounding divisions vulnerable. Paik's leadership of the ROK I Corps, though, was credited for repelling a brutal attack at Taegwallyong and inflicting tremendous damage to the Chinese.

Retraining the ROK

The ROK had failed in many of its missions in the spring attacks and all agreed that something needed to be done. Korean President Syngman Rhee wanted to increase his army from ten divisions to twenty and he wanted the United States to provide the equipment. The U.S. military leaders believed that it was useless to create more divisions when the existing ones were not living up to expectation. Paik, usually loyal to Rhee, sided with the Americans.

In July 1951, General Van Fleet decided to take all the ROK divisions out of the line and retrain them, one at a time. His training program was intensive. Paik recalled in his book: "Training lasted nine weeks and consisted of basic individual, squad, platoon, and company training. The center started

from scratch, assuming nobody knew anything. Every man in a division, with the exception of its commander, was required to undergo the training, and when the training was over, a unit had to pass a test before being assigned to the front." After training, the ROKs were finally provided with a more reasonable supply of arms and ammunition. When they went back to the line, the ROK Army was strong and skilled and had no more disorganized retreats. By December 1952, three out of four Eighth Army soldiers at the battlefront were ROKs.

Peace talks, hostile action

Armistice talks between the United Nations and the North Koreans and Chinese began in July 1951. Paik was selected as the South Korean representative at the meetings. Paik was opposed to the peace negotiations, fearing that the dream of Korean unification would be lost. He spoke up whenever it seemed that someone might listen, but he felt that his country's views were not being considered.

By August, Paik was told to report back to the ROK I Corps where he oversaw the heavy fighting around the 38th parallel at the Punchbowl, a large crater surrounded by hills, and Heartbreak Ridge. His troops were now fighting a war that barely moved, with both sides well entrenched and facing each other. The casualties were heavy and there was little to show for it on either side.

Operation Rat Killer

By November, with the front stable, Paik was called on to head Operation Rat Killer, which was formed to seek out and destroy communist guerrilla fighters in the southern part of South Korea. (Guerrilla warfare usually involves small groups of warriors who hide in mountains, enlist the help of the population, and use ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.) Two divisions were taken from the front for his use. Although Rat Killer did not eliminate all guerrillas, it dealt them a harsh blow. During this operation, Paik was again promoted, to lieutenant general.

When Operation Rat Killer was done, Paik was instructed to build a new ROK corps, the II Corps. It was complete with three divisions and ready for action by April 5, 1952. The United States was actively promoting the increase in the ROK Army, pushing it to take over as much of the combat as possible.


On July 22, 1952, Paik became chief of staff of the ROK Army. On January 31, 1953, he was promoted to four-star general. He was the first Korean officer to reach that rank. "If we lived in former times, you would be king of a new dynasty today," Syngman Rhee addressed the general during the ceremony for this honor, quoted in Paik's book. "Generals as powerful and successful as you in the dynastic years weren't satisfied to serve as mere subjects to the old king. But we are now a republic, not a kingdom, so you must be content with the stars of a full general."

End of battle

In May 1952, Paik took his first trip to the United States to learn more about how military training and organization were done there. He managed to meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entry), who himself had been supreme commander of the NATO forces in Europe during World War II, and relayed to him the strong opposition of the Korean people to an armistice that left Korea divided. Paik then visited West Point Academy; the Army's Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia; and the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he enrolled in a two-week course. He never finished it, because President Rhee called him home. Rhee was trying to throw a monkey wrench in the truce negotiations. Soon after Paik's return, Rhee secretly directed the ROK prison camp guards to release about twenty-five thousand North Korean POWs into the population of the Republic of Korea. The United States then bargained with Rhee, promising great amounts of economic and military aid so he would not obstruct the armistice. At the same time the Chinese viciously attacked the ROK units at the front, making it clear that they could still exercise their might against the small nation. Rhee agreed to the armistice and the final prisoner exchange began. The war in Korea was basically over, although for the Koreans it remained unresolved.

After the war

For Paik, the postwar years were extremely busy, with overseeing the prisoner exchange, and, as the U.S. troops withdrew, strengthening the ROK Army and its position at the demarcation line that separated North and South Korea. He remained the chief of staff until 1954, and was chairman for the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1957 to 1959. By 1959, Rhee had lost the support of the Korean people as a result of his strong-arm tactics and corruption. Angry student protesters forced him to flee to the United States. In the years after Rhee's presidency, Paik served his country as ambassador to France, Taiwan, and Canada, as well as other postings in Europe and Africa. In 1969, he retired from diplomatic service, and in 1971 he served as the Minister of Transportation. He has also held high positions in corporations. He lived with his wife in Seoul at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Where to Learn More

Paik Sun Yup. From Pusan to Panmujom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1992.

Ra, J. Y. "Paik Sun Yup." In Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, edited by James I. Matray. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Web sites

Franklin, Mark R. "Paik Sun Yup." State of New Jersey, U.S. Military Biographies: Korea. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

armistice: talks between opposing forces in which they agree to a truce or suspension of hostilities.

constabulary: a police force, separate from the regular army, but organized in the same manner as the army.

grenade: a small explosive weapon that can be thrown, usually with a pin that is pulled to activate it and a spring-loaded safety lever that is held down until the user wants to throw the grenade; once the safety lever is released, the grenade will explode in seconds.

guerrilla: a warrior who performs an irregular form of combat; in Korea the warriors generally hid in mountains, enlisted the help of the local population, and used ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.

infiltrate: to enter into enemy lines by passing through gaps in its defense.

morale: the way that a person or a group of people feels about the job they are doing or the mission they are working on.

suicide mission: an activity taken on with the knowledge that carrying it out will mean one's own death.

unification: the process of bringing together the separate parts of something to form a single unit; in Korea, the hopedfor act of bringing North and South Korea together under a single government.